Stuart Crainer of the Thinkers50 moderated a dream panel of people to comment on where “work” is going, including my dear friend Lynda Gratton (who just won an HR lifetime achievement award!), Amy Edmondson, Tammy Erickson and another dear friend Stew Friedman. They didn’t all agree where work was heading, which made for a stimulating dialogue.
One panelist (we’re under Chatham House rules here, so I can’t name names) observed that many people are still in denial about the impact of technology and globalization on the nature of how work gets done today. At an esteemed gathering of business leaders, a speaker commenting on how globalization is hollowing out many workplaces said that they “didn’t believe” in it!
Future Shock provides an early model
The ghost of “Future Shock” surfaced early in the discussion as a panelist recalled Alvin Toffler’s description of the competences that will be necessary to cope with a vast amount of change in a small amount of time. They were 1) to learn to relate; 2) to learn to choose; and 3) to learn to learn. In many ways, becoming successful in today’s marketplace places an ever greater premium on those different kinds of learning. In my view, the relating part gets at building networks that can be a form of enduring advantage. The choosing part is more important than ever as digital distractions and competing priorities make their claims on our time. And learning is absolutely key if you want to avoid personal obsolescence. One of my favorite descriptions of how this translates into the workplace is from Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys who talks about the “learnability” principle – not hiring people because of the skills they already have, but rather for the skills they could learn.
Work and family
The eternal topic of how demanding work can be combined with committed parenthood featured on the panel. Stew Friedman’s recent book Baby Bust, reports on unique research he’s done into the intentions of different generations of young people with respect to having families. One of his most startling findings is a dramatic drop-off in the intentions of both young men and women to have children at all. Stew (who bless him is an early male advocate of figuring out how to have productive workplaces and well cared for families) points out that most of our institutions still are built around the model of a single earner father, even though that reality has evaporated for the most part. The result is that younger people who want challenging careers are simply not seeing how they can accomplish this and become parents as well.
The slow catastrophe of youth unemployment
We also talked about the looming crisis of youth unemployment, with the startling statistic that global youth unemployment is at something like 12.3% (and in places like the Eurozone, it’s higher than 24%), but that in some parts of the world the rate is much higher. One significant concern is that employers are no longer offering those “first rung on the ladder” starter jobs for young people In many economies, these have been replaced by an endless series of internships or contract jobs with little hope that these will eventually turn into the more permanent jobs that people yearn for. One of the most startling statistics that came up for me was that 48% of “work” performed in the US is not tied to a permanent job. I thought that was interesting.
The panel varied between outright pessimism about the future of work to a more optimistic view.
Three categories of ‘workers’
So, where do I come down on this? I think we’re increasingly looking at a trifurcated workforce model. The first group will have jobs that are a lot like the good jobs everybody seems to want to create. They will be skilled and be considered by their employers to be part of the secret sauce that makes the organization run, so they will be semi-permanently tied to the organization. A second group is also highly skilled, but not necessarily using those skills solely for one organization. Think of technical experts who come together to work on a movie – they don’t work on one movie their whole careers. In business, we see a lot of these folks in consulting, advisory or temporary staff roles. The third group is the one that worries me – these are people who are not regarded as especially valuable by those that hire them and have a very loose association to any organization because as far as the employer is concerned there are ten more standing in line behind them. I don’t think we understand very well how to help people from this last group better their lot. I’d love to learn more about that issue and what solutions have been proven to work.